NEAR BAKHMUT, Ukraine — “300s! 300s!” the medical staff shout as they race out from their clinic to meet incoming ambulances, donning surgical gloves as they run. Code “300″ is shorthand for wounded soldiers; they’re trying to keep those injured troops from becoming “200,” or dead.
It is around 10 a.m. in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine and a beaten-up old ambulance creaks up to the makeshift clinic’s doorway to unload two soldiers critically injured during a frontline assault raging just four miles away.
The medical team throws open the doors, loads the casualties onto stretchers, and carries them into an operating theater. The patients are wrapped in gold-foil blankets, one bleeding so profusely from the abdomen that he immediately gets most of the doctor’s attention.
The battlefield heroics of Ukraine’s soldiers are well-documented. Less well-known are the doctors, nurses and paramedics who risk their lives to save the injured. Troops call them “guardian angels.” Military Times was granted access to one of these frontline medical locations, known as stabilization points, in a village close to the heavily fought-over city of Bakhmut, on the condition we did not reveal its exact location.
Pumped full of morphine by battlefield paramedics to dull the pain, the injured men do not shout or scream, just making the occasional low moan. The medical team — consisting of at least one surgeon, an anesthesiologist and a few nurses — loads the badly injured man into a surgerical room and gets to work, stripping off his clothes and trying to sterilize and clean his wound and staunch the bleeding. After his condition stabilizes, they stretcher him back outside and into an ambulance waiting take him to a medical hospital in the nearby city of Kramatorsk.
Near the front lines
There are from 10 to 15 of these field hospitals set up around the various frontlines in Ukraine’s south and east. All are within Russian artillery range. Just a few days before we visited the clinic, a rocket landed in the courtyard, though no one was harmed.
In the background, we can hear consistent shellfire and can see the vapor trails of 155mm shells. “Nashy” (“ours”) the medics said as the shots ring out. A soldier accompanying us said that they are probably from U.S.-provided M777 howitzers that have been making a difference in the fight. While Ukraine has spent much of the war outgunned by Russian ordnance, almost all the artillery we hear seems to be coming from Ukrainian forces, who are slowly gaining the upper hand in this theater.
An hour or so later, I speak with the less badly injured of the two men. He introduces himself as Alexei, and he explains that he was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by a group of Russian soldiers who were counterattacking a trench position the Ukrainians had captured near the town of Soledar, outside Bakhmut.
Being injured by small arms is an exception in this battlefield, where the doctors say around 80% of casualties are caused by enemy artillery. On the southern frontlines, where the Ukrainians are going up against heavily prepared Russian defensive lines, many casualties are from minefields. A report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies called these “the most extensive defensive works in Europe since World War II.”
Since early June, the Ukrainians have been assaulting on three separate axes to try to liberate Russian territory. The first, in the Zaporizhzhia region, aims to cut the Russian land bridge to Crimea by taking the key town of Melitopol. Advancing Ukrainian forces initially incurred heavy losses but have made steady progress in recent weeks.
A second, starting from the Donetsk town of Velyka Novosilkya toward Mariupol, has been put on ice as the Ukrainians, due to American advice, have decided to focus most of their troops on the main effort in Zaporizhzhia, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
The third is here, near Bakhmut. The Russians, led by the Wagner mercenary group, fought a year-long battle of extraordinary brutality to try to capture the city. Now, Ukraine’s most experienced forces, like the 3rd Assault Brigade, have been trying to encircle the city, and have made important tactical gains that threaten to cut off Russian supply routes to the city.
Last year’s Ukrainian counteroffensive successes in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions had given rise to hopes that they would be able to make a quick push to the sea to cut the Russian’s land bridge to Crimea.
But those hopes were quickly dashed in June, when Ukrainian troops lost a large number of Leopard tanks and Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles in those opening weeks to multilayered Russian defenses, including minefields 3- to 6-miles deep. A New York Times report said that as much as 20% of the donated Western gear was damaged or destroyed, although much of this could be repaired.
To save its equipment, and more importantly, its manpower, Ukraine has turned to a strategy of attrition, attempting to use its advantage in precision artillery to wear away at Russia’s ability to wage war.
The constant artillery exchanges mean that thousands of soldiers have come through this facility. “At the beginning of June, there were days when there were 120-130 patients per day because of the combat units’ activities,” said Oleh Tokarchuk, 47, a doctor from the small town of Kolyma in the western Ivano-Frankivsk region of Ukraine. That’s 20 to 30 more than they have staff or operating theaters to cope with, he said.
And numbers of injured spiked to 200 or so a day when the town of Soledar itself fell to Russian forces in January this year. The mid-summer day we visited was blessedly slower than usual: only a dozen casualties while we were there, although we left before the evening shift, which is when the fighting often picks up.
Calm amid th chaos: caffeine, war and Wi-Fi
It is strange, the level of normality that can exist so close to the world’s fiercest fighting. Despite our proximity to the frontlines, there is perfect mobile internet connectivity. In lulls between patients, one nurse is using a computer to play the video game League of Legends, and another is scrolling Instagram and TikTok. In the small village where the hospital is located, a few civilians remain. A small shop remains open, and I can still pay for my Red Bull and chocolate bar with Apple Pay.
In the relative calm of a building on the outskirts of the city of Kramatorsk, we were received by a group of medics working at the stabilization point who had rotated out for a day’s rest. Lyuba, who asked to only be identified by her first name, had worked as a civilian doctor for eight years. Originally from the city of Chernihiv in northern Ukraine, she enlisted as a volunteer in March 2022 and regularly works near the frontlines, together with other top-flight doctors.
“We are professionals — we don’t have paramedics who had 2- or 3-week courses and ran to the frontline,” she said. “There is always a senior doctor in a brigade with a nurse, a driver and a guard in dangerous zones.”
The life-threatening cases they deal with often require specialist surgery that would tax the best western hospitals, like the soldier who arrived unconscious with a traumatic brain injury.
“He got a bullet in his eye because of close combat. It was very difficult because the bullet was in the skull,” she said. Because of the surgeon’s skill, they were able to operate and save the soldier’s life.
In some cases, they treat people who see them as their sworn enemies, like the pro-Russian civilians in some of the Donbas villages. Ukrainians refer to them as those who are “waiting for the Russians,” she explained. They were treating one such man when he woke and saw that everyone around him was speaking Ukrainian.
“He started swallowing his blood, screaming that he wouldn’t allow us to collect his blood because Banderovtsy (Ukrainian nationalists) would use it for experiments! It was terrible,” she said. “The funniest thing was that when he was calmed down, he was moved to a hospital for civilians staffed by Polish doctors. Our guys laughed that when he wakes up, he will see the NATO army!”
Once, she said with a shudder, they even had to treat a wounded and abandoned Russian soldier, but they saved his life, not just out of a sense of professional duty but knowing that he could be valuable in an exchange for captured Ukrainians.
For medic Tokarchuk, what keeps him going is a sense of deep gratitude to the soldiers on the front line.
“Medics do a very important job, but it’s nothing compared to what the guys in the trenches are doing,” he said. “So, when one of them comes here and I can save the life of this hero lying on the table in front of me, it’s an honor.”